The Era of TV series

We arrived by elevator on a moon-shy night. Two pretty boys in ripped and burned-out T-shirts led us into an anteroom where a doctor was sliding on medical mittens. She was tugging at the latex with her teeth. We were told to strip, leave our scarves, hats and umbrellas on a steaming pile of abandoned garments. The soaked up rain in wool ponchos and trench coats was evaporating; there were high levels of human-radiated heat.

“I’d like to order a hamburger,” a broad man said. He wore a motorcycle jacket and mirrored sunglasses. His hair was black and shiny, shaped into a monstrous crest.
“Just because I’m wearing my uniform, doesn’t mean I’m on duty,” I said, softening the blow with a smile. “Besides, I haven’t seen Lafayette yet. Perhaps he’s not coming.”

We eased into a bustling salon, sealed up in plastic. Faces were stamped with excitement, suspense, kaleidoscopic paints. A zombie offered us a cocktail. Our hands reached out, but we were bushwhacked, bear-hugged from behind by Spartacus.
“Don’t let this corpse bleed you dry,” he warned me, pointing to the dapper vampire at my side.
“Happy Birthday, Spartacus,” the vampire said.

We traded small talk for gifts, eyeing the characters around us. Near the bar, a full-breasted redhead showed off her shapely behind in a tight scarlet over-knee dress. Three guys in bulky sneakers were semi-loafing on canes, debating whether to pop another pseudo-pill; transvestites dotted the dance floor, some allured in low-cut attire, others in checkered tweed suits. I spied a car mechanic, one fat grizzly bear, a state trooper. They weren’t talking.

“Hey Alice, what’s up?” an orange-suited prisoner asked.
“Alice is in Wonderland,” I replied. “I’m her evil twin—packing fairy blood.”

Lady Gaga was turned-up. A man sporting tighty-whities waltzed in, otherwise well-dressed from the waist up. The vampire and I started prancing. Occasionally, I offered him my throat. In between highballs and chitchat, the champagne flowed. When the green surgeon arrived, we knew it was time to quit the joint.

After the age of Almodovar came the year of Disney, and now, the era of TV series. We wondered what Spartacus would opt for next. At least we learned one thing: being mutilated, dead or inhuman doesn’t stop you from having a good time.

Call and answer – the pure joy of discovering a magic trick

It’s a sunny day in the Jardin du Luxembourg. I’m walking on one of the raised balustraded terraces along a row of tall trees. Up in a branch, a bird is calling out. It is hidden from sight by the first spring leafs, but its two-tonal call sounds bright and clear.

Seconds later, it is answered by a second bird. Their dialogue continues, with short and regular pauses in between their exchanges. I’m imagining a romantic pursuit, although they might as well be sending out territorial warnings.

As I pass the birds, I notice that the answer doesn’t originate in a treetop, but comes from close to the ground. I scan the gravel surface around me. I’m curious to see which bird is making this distinct sound.

Underneath the tree, on a park bench, sits an older African man.  I look at him, while waiting for the birds to cry out. The call sounds, and when the African moves his lips in synch with the answer, I feel an intense rush of happiness. To my ears, he has mimicked the bird’s two-tonal call perfectly. I send him a warm smile, hoping that it resembles that of a child who experiences the pure joy of discovering a magic trick.

He looks up at the tree, and then returns to me. His eyes ask: do you think the bird has figured it out yet?

Writing frenzy

I don’t believe in magic. I don’t believe in a mysterious force that guides me, but judging from my recent experiences, I would be foolish not to believe in inspiration.

For the past two weeks, my husband and I have been writing. Day and night. He is finishing the first draft of a new screenplay and I am working on the first chapters of what might become my debut novel in English.

Of course, we take breaks from our desks. We sleep and make coffee; we go out and inhale a day’s worth of fresh air. We don’t, however, take breaks from our minds, or from our subconscious, or from whatever it is that tunes us in to the whispering and sometimes howling voice. What we are experiencing is a writing frenzy: we are eating and dreaming and living our tales.

During my yoga sessions in the early morning, I keep my notebook on the mat. Often an idea pops up while my knees are hugging my cheeks. At breakfast, I read: The Great Gatsby, The Elements of Style. I read, and I drift off; it is difficult to concentrate while my head continues to absorb messages from undefined sources. Over lunch, my husband and I barely talk. We discuss the weather, or the food we should purchase, but we don’t get on a subject that might distract us.

The news? Television? Our social life? We are disconnected and rely on others to reestablish the bonds when important matters need to reach us. Occasionally, I take an hour out of my day to phone or respond to an email. Other obligations I note on a list, so I can ban them out of my mind. Without their cluttering noise, I hear much better.

Behind my desk, I create and transcribe, two different writing activities. When I create, I follow a stream I do not know, and trust it will take me to where I need to be; the result is often surprising. When I transcribe, I jot down ideas that came earlier, and just feed them to the manuscript. It’s less thrilling work, but it’s equally important: we need words to communicate ideas, and if I don’t type them, they will never exist in the minds of others.

Sometimes the ideas appear at inconvenient moments. I am able to shut them out for a while, but I won’t: a writing frenzy only happens when I surrender. The potential of loosing an idea, is frightening though. When I’m in the park or at the market, and a flash of ideas makes my heart speed up, I rush back to my desk and turn myself into a typist as soon as possible. On the way, I repeat the ideas in my head, over and over again, avoiding encounters with shopkeepers or neighbors, however friendly they may be, as they can only distract me. Sometimes I memorize entire paragraphs this way, or sketch out pages of dialogue.

And that’s all there is to it; I dream and think, I formulate and rearrange, I brood and wait: I write. Until the fatigue sets in and cuts me off. Meanwhile, my husband goes through the motions of a similar process. Fortunately, our working schedules are almost identical – or perhaps we are just being practical. Preparing and eating our dinner is a jovial happening, as we are both overflowing from excitement, and the feeling of having achieved something. After wine and food the ambiance changes; we are simply drained.

Right before going to bed, we turn on an episode of Dr. House, and we do so with religious loyalty. We sleep well after watching him solve his medical mysteries and fuck up his private life, and we wake up with well-attuned heads. Somehow, Dr. House has become part of our ritual and we don’t want to jinx our inspiration by watching a film.

Sometimes I fear the frenzy will soon be over and my mind will focus on the outside world again; I have a quick look at the newspapers and check the social networks.  Or I draw up a little post like this one. An hour later, I feel that surge again, that physical sensation of the blood rushing through my veins. No, I still don’t believe in magic, but I’m going in for another meal: the Muse is calling me to dinner.

Zwarte Piet – or the problem of Dutch Black Peter.

It’s Sinterklaastijd in Holland. Literally this means “The period of Saint Nicolas” – not to be confused with Santa Claus. In reality it’s an excuse for throwing all dietary restrictions out of the window. Children and adults alike are consuming unbelievable amounts of high-sugar and high-fat products like kruidnoten, taaitaai and marzipan. The Easter Bunny with its chocolate eggs can’t even compete.

A big favorite in Sinterklaastijd is the chocolate letter. As the Dutch excel in making things personal and educational, most stores are equipped with endless shelves on which they display the 26 letters of the alphabet – each letter exists in different flavors, so you are not limited to buy someone the first letter of their name, but you can also show that you know them a little by choosing the milk, pure or white variety.

Last week a journalist from Rotterdam brought me one of those letters, and as she had read my novel, in which the main character is a health-and-environmental minded person, she had chosen a Fairtrade version with reasonably pure ingredients. The journalist had assumed (not incorrectly) that my novel contained autobiographical elements, and that I would be happy to receive chocolate that was free of slave-labor and bad additives.

The letter, however, did display a small figurine recognizable as the head of Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), and I explained that it would tickle a chuckle out of my American husband, who perceives the Dutch tradition, in which we surround an old white man with dark skinned servants, as rather racist. When my husband saw the chocolate letter, he indeed made a comment, and when he saw me cutting a piece off my C, he asked: “Are you going to eat Black Peter?”
As I had already studied the ingredients of this particular chocolate piece and had noticed the E-nummers, I answered, a little too quickly: “No, I won’t. Too many colorants.”
My husband just looked at me baffled, thinking: “I rest my case”.

Female characters in fiction

Last night, my husband and I argued about female characters in contemporary novels. In his opinion I had been quite tough on Eugenides’ Madeleine – he agreed that she wasn’t as well developed as the male characters in the novel, but which male writer nowadays was able to successfully capture the female psyche?

I protested – there were so many good contemporary authors. They must have written about memorable, witty and profound female characters? But as I tried to actually name them, I found very few. Patty, from the recent Franzen novel was one. And Elisabeth Costello, from the mind of Coetzee. But mentioning Ana Karenina or Madame Bovary was not going to help – as they did not fit the profile of ‘contemporary’.

So my question is: what are your favorite female characters, created by contemporary male authors (in all languages) in the last, say, twenty-five years?

The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides

When you start reading a novel with the highest expectations, chances are you’ll be disappointed when you turn the last page. Unfortunately, this was the case with The Marriage Plot, a novel I have looked forward to before its title was even announced.

The Marriage Plot is a good novel, though, let me state that first, and if it had been written by an unknown author, I might have appreciated it more. But in this world, it was written by the author of Middlesex, a book I so thoroughly enjoyed and admired, that I read its sequel with a good deal of anticipation.

It might seem unfair, that one work creates expectations for another work, that a novel is not judged on its own merits. Still, Jeffrey Eugenides could have foreseen this type of judgement. Having chosen semiotics as one of his themes, he must have realized that books refer to other books, and that human experiences are similarly related: we experience life through the accounts of our earlier experiences, and those of others. What we read and hear, influences how we perceive and judge reality. Everything reminds us of what has been noted before: we live in a pre-experienced world.

Eugenides is playing with this concept throughout his novel. His chosen motto is from La Rochefoucauld: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.” He often describes objects with popular references (“black iron fences like those in a Charles Addams cartoon or a Lovecraft story”). He even lets one of his characters state that his goal in life is “to become an adjective”, to create a unique universe to which others can refer, like Kafkaesque or Tolstoyan. To say that The Marriage Plot was not Eugenidesean enough for me, could also be interpreted as a compliment.

I loved the utterly American setting (a college on the Northeastern coast in the early nineteen eighties), I marveled at the style (“What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative!”) and I was interested in reading about manic depression and Christian mysticism. The novel is also very engaging; Eugenides does not miss one detail to bring you back into a time and place. He quotes the movies his characters watch, describes the food they crave, mentions the tracks they play in the bar and the photos they have framed on their walls. On top of that, the novel provided me with the joy of recognition: Derrida, Barthes and their delicious incomprehensibility. It was all quite entertaining.

So why was I disappointed? Madeleine, the female protagonist, does not develop into a character for whom I can cheer. The long opening section is written from her point of view, and she does not come across as particularly interesting. Even after she gets over the hangover she is presumably suffering from, she has little to show for herself. Nearly half of the novel is given to her, but as well read and clever as the people around her seem to be, Madeleine herself does not spark. Things just seem to happen to her and she responds haphazardly. Her thoughts are often limited to reflections about her sex life, her looks, her moderate career ambitions, and the lack of party-time. Why the two male characters fall in love with her and become obsessed, remains a mystery. Perhaps they are not so profound after all, falling for a pretty girl, whose looks are nonetheless never described to be amazing.

By the end, when the male characters take the stage more often, the novel becomes better, but ultimately The Marriage Plot does not deliver what it promises. From the opening lines of the book, the title and the interest Madeleine has in the role of matrimony in fictional plots, I had expected a story in which the reading of Victorian novels would somehow influence the outcome. I had expected a love story of our times, something to replace the epic and romantic stories of our past. Not necessary with a happy ending, but with something that would show us how we perceive love differently, because we have read the stories of our past. Perhaps Eugenides realized too late that this replacing love story does not exist. The Marriage Plot is therefore mainly a novel about literature (and its limitations), a metafiction for semiotics to explore, and says little about our lives. Or in the thoughts of Madeleine: “If you used your head, if you became aware of how love was culturally constructed and began to see your symptoms as purely mental, if you recognized that being ‘in love’ was only an idea, then you could liberate yourself from its tyranny. Madeleine knew all that. The problem was, it didn’t work.”

More opinions? The NYT is moderately positive, the Guardian is not convinced (“It certainly doesn’t play to the idiosyncratic strengths of its gifted author”), and the Washington Post calls it “exceptionally witty and poignant”.

Kind of normal

“What’s wrong?” my husband inquired. “You are frowning more than usual.”
“I don’t know. I feel empty.”
“No ideas for your books?”
“Plenty of ideas for my books. I just don’t have any…. personal ideas.”
“What are those? Aren’t all ideas personal?”
“What I mean is: I don’t have any thoughts that pertain to me. My characters are more alive than I am.”
My husband sighs in relief. “That’s kind of normal, isn’t it?”